Wizardry IV: Choosing the Potato

Around Halloween, there was a viral Twitter thread about offering trick-or-treaters a choice between candy or a potato. Just show them a bowl of candy with a few potatoes in it and let them choose. While most children choose candy, enough chose the potato that the person doing the experiment ran out of potatoes. I think it’s easy to understand why. Potatoes are different. None of the other houses were offering potatoes. I posit that the children didn’t desire potatoes specifically, they just wanted to participate in unique events.

This is obviously relevant to game design. I play a lot of games, so naturally I choose novelty where I can, picking unique character classes. I got into the habit of picking female characters when given the choice mainly because so many games didn’t support it! But Wizardry IV illustrates the potato principle in a much more trick-or-treaty way.

Every time you win a fight, you get to pick over the inventory of those you defeated, and choose which items, if any, you want to take with you. This is an entirely new UI for the series. In previous titles, if loot from an encounter included any items at all — which it usually didn’t — they were just randomly handed to any character with a free slot to hold them. But here, you have only one character who can hold things, and even after you’ve acquired the equivalent of a bag of holding, you can only pick things up into the slots for things you’re holding directly. It’s not uncommon for the drops to overflow that. So you get a choice.

And it’s usually a pretty easy choice, because most items are things that Werdna can’t use: armor, swords, shields, etc. On level 1, you pick up a staff and a robe. Later on, you have a few opportunities to pick up a better staff, but not many. Hats and cloaks are sometimes an improvement over what you have. But mostly you just look at what’s on offer, ask “Do I need any healing right now?”, and if the answer is “yes”, pick out the potions. Which frequently aren’t even healing potions, in which case you just drop them to free up room — you don’t identify items until after they’re chosen..

But occasionally, you see something unique. A “silk cloth”, say, or a “weighty cube”, or a “holy reliquary”. These are the potatoes in the candy: unique opportunities, mostly key items crucial to advancing the plot. So of course you take them!

There’s one special trick the game plays with this, and it has to do with the witch’s brew puzzle I described earlier. Recall that the witch describes all the ingredients she needs in oblique terms that the player has to puzzle out. One of the things she needs is a blender. Experienced Wizardry players will immediately know what this means: the Blade Cusinart’ [sic], one of the most powerful weapons in the series, a whirling blade that greatly increases the number of strikes its wielder gets in each round. (Wikipedia specifically cites this puzzle as defying localization.) But the Blade Cusinart’ is a drop from an encounter, and before it’s identified — when you have to choose it — it’s just called “sword”. By the time it shows up, you’ve given up on swords. They’re never useful — except this once. Most key items, you stumble into. Just this once, you have to know what you’re looking for.

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